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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
It's a downer Down Under
Imagine one of those cheesy horror movies where the bogeyman's just about to get you, but you wake up and ahhh, it was only a dream. But wait: Oh no! You're still in the dream and can't get out!
That, precisely, is the experience of watching Baz Luhrmann's turgid epic "Australia." Somewhere around the 100-minute point you'll be thinking "Thank Buddha, it's over!" and reaching for your coat. But the punishment has only just begun; Luhrmann supposedly had a half-dozen endings for this film, and it sure feels like he tossed them all in.
Luhrmann films always give me anger-management problems. I want to write a reasonable critique of what's so utterly wrong about his style, but I can barely suppress the urge to just bang on the keyboard: "*#!%ing" "!#*! sucker" "#!%¥ing son of a -#*!@" "gibber, gnash, gnarl!"
Cinemas screening "Australia" should forego the popcorn and just serve warm, buttery buckets of meds at the concession stands. "Would you like some Tenex or Risperdal with your Coke, sir?"
With "Australia," Luhrmann continues in his "metamovie" style of "Romeo & Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge," where the entire film consists wholly of quotes and lifts from other movies and videos. It's an entirely artificial, clever-clever approach, one that would be thoroughly postmodern were it not utterly lacking in a sense of irony. "Australia" is Luhrmann's attempt to make a Down Under "Gone With The Wind," crossed with "Out Of Africa," "The African Queen" and a fistful of old Hollywood cowboy flicks. Of course, "Australia" resembles "Gone With The Wind" the same way that Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" resembles "From Here To Eternity," that is, it is its dumb, in-bred cousin.
The problem is clear mere minutes into the film: Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman, looking especially botoxed these days), a constipated toff from England, arrives in Darwin in late 1939, intending to visit her outback estate, Faraway Downs, where she hopes to catch her husband doing the deed with his mistress. Driving her to the ranch is one of her husband's employees, Drover (Hugh Jackman), whose brawling, rough-hewn ways repel Lady Ashley.
Soon enough, the posh priss and the plain-spoken prole are "comically" bickering, and even a clever chimp can predict they'll fall for each other in the next reel, right after she lets down her hair, and he takes a bath.
Luhrmann is aiming for the fizz of classic 1940s screwball comedy, but the acting style comes off as campy and silly as anything in "The Mummy" series, not a good thing in a film with pretensions to being a serious statement on racism and national identity. Jackman channels Indiana Jones/Rhett Butler fairly well, but Kidman's performance is a disaster some sort of undrinkable cocktail consisting of equal parts Katharine Hepburn, Margaret Thatcher and Mary Poppins. The scene where she tries to sing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" to a grieving child, while hemming and hawing and hamming up her stiff-upper-lip aristocratic reserve, may in fact be the worst performance she's ever committed to film.
The child she sings to is Nullah, a half-Aboriginal child played by Brandon Walters, who — looking adorable in every scene — seems to have based his performance on the dog in "Marley & Me." (And him speakem blackfella way, put "bloody" before every no-good bloody word, just like that Indian, Sardeep, in Madonna's bloody movie, ha-ha!).
Nullah's dilemma is that under Australia's then policy regarding mixed-race offspring, he would be taken from his mother — a house-servant at Faraway Downs — and placed in a Christian mission. (A topic covered with much greater impact in "Rabbit-Proof Fence.") After Nullah's mother dies in an incredibly contrived accident, the film follows Mrs. Boss (as Nullah calls Lady Ashley) and Drover as they slowly fall for each other and assume parental responsibility for Nullah.
There's also a cattle drive across the outback, the Japanese bombing of Darwin, an evil rancher named King Carney (Bryan Brown) trying to buy out Faraway Downs, and Carney's even more evil assistant, Fletcher (David Wenham), who's actually Nullah's dad but won't admit to it. (Symbolizing bad, racist Australia, which must be vanquished by good, liberal Australia before the last reel.)
The film makes much of its antiracist stance, but exactly how antiracist is it when you include a cartoony Chinese cook named Sing-Song and an Aboriginal elder who seems to think he's Gandalf from Middle Earth? Yes, racism is bad . . . unless of course it's those damn Japanese, whose Zeroes show up in the final reel to at last put Luhrmann's digital effects crew to work. The bombing of Darwin did actually happen, but one truly doubts the Japanese commander sent out a death squad specifically to attack a children's mission. Of course this does allow Drover's noble black sidekick to die in battle, a perennial trope of smugly liberal (white) filmmakers who love minorities, just not enough to let them be the stars and get the girl.
I could go on, but I feel my blood pressure rising. Suffice to say that Australia's Parliament should consider passing a law prohibiting use of the nation's name in creative properties. Never has a national brand been so tarnished by one mere film.